An old yeshiva joke tells of a bachur who is completely paralyzed when he encounters a Talmudic passage that seems to contain unresolvable contradictions. All his learning accomplishments turn to ash; either he has misunderstood everything, or else the Talmud is not worth studying. His rebbe responds by telling him to study a series of apparently random Tosafot. On further investigation, it turns out that each of these Tosafot immediately follows one that ends with an unresolved question. The moral is drawn: If Tosafot went on despite having unresolved questions, so can you!
A comment of Rashi to Genesis 35:13 seems intended to make the same point. “I do not know what (in the place where He had spoken with him) teaches us.” If you have nothing to say, why not remain silent? The point must be that incomplete understanding of one verse does not preclude you from making valuable contributions to the understanding of other verses.
All very well and good. Yet almost every subsequent traditional commentator, from medieval through modern, feels compelled to resolve Rashi’s difficulty rather than joining his confession of ignorance. (Many of their solutions miss the heart of Rashi’s question, which is that the phrase “the place where He has spoken with him” shows up in three consecutive verses, and appears essential in none of them.) They seem to feel that acknowledging failure in one case would undermine their entire interpretive enterprise.
Talmud Pesachim 22b records the following narrative beraita:
Shim’on haAmsuni – Some say: Nechemya haAmsuni – would derive meaning from each incidence of “et” in the Torah.
When he reached the verse “et Hashem your G-d you must revere”, his students asked: “Rebbe, all the “et”s that you previously derived meaning from, what will occur to them?”
He said to them: “Just as I received reward for derishah (=interpretation), so too I will receive reward for perishah (=separating from interpretation)”.
Until Rabbi Akiva came along and interpreted: “Et Hashem Your G-d you must revere” – this comes to include Torah scholars.
Shimon haAmsuni contended that the direct object marker “et” should always be understood as meaning “with”. In one verse, his approach seemed to yield a theological monstrosity; whom should one fear “with G-d”? Rabbi Akiva’s solution was that people must revere Torah scholars as part of their reverence of G-d, or as Yerushalmi Berakhot 9:5 puts it, they must revere “Him and His Torah”.
What did Shim’on haAmsuni teach before Rabbi Akiva came along? Did “I will receive reward for perishah” mean that he avoided saying anything about this specific verse, or rather that he refused to repeat any of his previous interpretations of “et”?
Human interpretation of G-d’s work is always reaching beyond ourselves, and we should be suspicious of any theory that successfully explains everything in Torah – more likely we are imposing our own vision on the text. But what do we do when our own interpretive theory’s inevitable failure is starkly exposed?
Most commentators assume that we withdraw our theory, that we cannot continue teaching until we can plausibly pretend that we can explain everything. They assume that Shim’on Ha’amsuni simply refused to teach until Rabbi Akiva came up with the answer. Thus they rarely if ever include comments pointing out the weaknesses of their approach.
Rashi thought otherwise. He wrote “I do not know what this teaches us,” and went on writing. The humility of this comment lies not only, and not even primarily, in his confession that he does not understand this verse, but rather in the implicit acknowledgement that this set of verses casts a shadow on his entire project. If he can’t explain why this apparently extraneous phrase occurs in three consecutive verses, how can we have confidence in a methodology that requires the assumption that there are no extra words anywhere in the text?
Rashi nonetheless goes on teaching what he thinks is true. But he does so having gift-wrapped for his readers the evidence for overruling or even disregarding him. It is not surprising that very few of his successors were willing to do the same.
I suggest that Rashi’s attitude is desperately needed specifically in our time and place. Anyone in intellectual contact with “postmodernity” realizes that every interpretive system will generate unresolvable contradictions, and that the more perfectly a theory fits the evidence, the more suspicious we should be that the evidence is artificial. We all know at some level that there are things in Torah which our religious theories cannot explain well.
This realization can yield four negative responses.
We can become paralyzed, unable to make choices;
We can become relativists, unable to believe that our choices matter;
We can come to believe that our choices have value simply because we made them, and are therefore not subject to moral critique; and
We can choose to believe that our choices are demonstrably correct, and therefore aggressively reject rational critique.
Or, following Rashi and perhaps Shimon haAmsuni, we can be both humble and firm. We can simultaneously affirm our derishah and our perishah, continuing to teach our best understanding of Torah while acknowledging the inevitable limits and weaknesses of our understanding and welcoming both moral and rational critiques.